As someone who writes about money (and how to make the most of it) for a living, I try to practice what I preach and keep a close eye on my budget. But travel is my Achilles heel. Drop me into a department store while the January sales are in full swing and the chances are I’ll leave empty-handed. Tell me you’ve just snapped up bargain plane tickets to a city I’ve never been to, though, and I’ll be scouring flight comparison sites faster than you can say “bon voyage”.
Last year I was lucky enough to spend a couple of months in South America. I was also in the fortunate position of being able to arrange travel insurance at a reasonable cost and without any hassle, meaning I could devote more time – and money – to the more exciting items on my checklist, like planning a trek in the Andes and a tour across Bolivia’s salt flats. That’s because other than a chronic case of wanderlust I have no pre-existing medical conditions to declare.
But for travellers who have been ill, finding affordable cover can be more involved than organising the trip itself. A recent Which? Money investigation highlighted the various ways in which insurers are creating unnecessary stress for people who have already dealt with the worry of health problems.
First there’s the application process. As with any type of insurance, the onus is on you to answer questions fully and honestly as not doing so could result in future claims being rejected. But the level of information you’ll need to provide varies from insurer to insurer, and in some cases it’s simply not clear what they’re looking for. As one customer we spoke to put it, “They ask if you’re taking regular medication, but this could be anything from beta-blockers for heart disease to eye drops.”
At the outset you’ll be asked a series of “trigger questions” about your medical history. Your answers will determine whether or not you’re then directed to a more in-depth screening. Many insurers use the same automated medical screening software, which generates a score that reflects the risk you represent. This means you’re likely to find yourself answering the same questions over and over when shopping around – not only tedious, but potentially stressful too, given their nature.
How insurers use the risk score when pricing is entirely up to them, so you could be quoted wildly different premiums depending on where you look.
In a survey of more than 10,000 Which? members about buying travel insurance, 64 per cent said they’d declared a pre-existing medical condition, and a quarter of those said they’ve faced inflated premiums.
Would-be travellers who have previously been treated for cancer face a particular challenge. One lady, who had breast cancer more than a decade ago and hasn’t taken cancer-related drugs for three years, told us that her annual policy costs £205, but she’s had quotes as high as £700.
And when we gathered quotes based on the fictional profile of a woman aged 58 who is awaiting treatment for cancer, the highest was a staggering £1,021 for just a week in France.
Hundreds of people with pre-existing medical conditions said in the survey that they’ve either cancelled a trip or risked travelling without insurance because it was too expensive or too difficult to find a policy.
You can often get a better deal by opting for a single-trip policy and choosing your destination carefully. Insurers can accept a higher level of risk on a single-trip policy compared to a multi-trip policy, because they know the exact destination and duration of risk.
You can expect to pay a lot more if you’re planning a trip to the US, where healthcare is private. And many insurers will bump up premiums for holidays in Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, Turkey and Malta, where medical costs tend to be higher than for the rest of Europe. In fact, you should double check that your “European” policy doesn’t exclude these countries entirely. Cruises are also notoriously pricey to insure.
But the major barrier to finding cover for pre-existing conditions at a decent price is that specialist insurers – which carry out a more granular risk assessment and can offer more affordable quotes – are crowded out of the market. Thanks to their hefty marketing budgets, you’re more likely to first make contact with the mainstream brands that are less likely to meet your needs. Many people give up at this stage and assume they’re uninsurable.
To tackle this problem the Financial Conduct Authority has been working with the industry to develop a new signposting service, expected to launch in the next few months. The idea is that if you don’t manage to secure suitable cover at your first port of call, whether that’s an insurer, comparison site or broker, you’ll be quickly redirected to specialist providers.
So far, so sensible. But for it to make a difference, people need to actually succeed in finding an affordable policy at the end of the process. This might sound obvious, but it’s not a given – many insurers already suggest alternatives when they are unable to offer cover, but these don’t necessarily have a higher risk appetite.
Buying travel insurance is never going to be as enjoyable as plotting the itinerary for your dream holiday, but the industry needs to do much more to ensure that it doesn’t turn into an outrageously expensive ordeal for those who have already endured the stress of living with a serious medical condition.
Jenny Ross is Which? money editor